Rhubarb History

Rhubarb is a very old plant. Its medicinal uses and horticulture have been recorded in history since ancient China.

Early History

Earliest records date back to 2700 BC in China where Rhubarb was cultivated for medicinal purposes (its purgative qualities). According to Lindley's Treasury of Botany, the technical name of the genus (Rheum) is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, on whose banks the plants grow. There were those who called it Rha Ponticum, and others Rheum or Rha-barbarum. Others derive the name from the Greek rheo ('to flow'), in allusion to the purgative properties of the root. One of the most famous pharmacologists of ancient times the Greek Discorides, spoke of a root known as "rha" or "rheon&;quot;, which came from the Bosphorus (the winding strait that separates Europe and Asia).

The following comes from Bj&;ouml;rn Kjellgren, Dept. of Chinese studies, University of Stockholm, Sweden: "You might be interested in the following from the (Chinese) 25 Dynastic Histories, ershiwu shi (the collected official histories of the empirical dynasties):

  • Rhubarb is given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty (reign: 557-579) to cure his fever but only after warning him that rhubarb, being a most potent drug, must be taken with great moderation.
  • Rhubarb was transported to the throne as tributes from the southern parts of China during the Tang dynasty (618-907).
  • During the Song dynasty (960-1127) the rhubarb is taken in times of plague.
  • During the Yuan dynasty (1115-1234) a Christian sentenced to a hard punishment is pardoned after using previously collected rhubarb to heal some soldiers.
  • During the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) a Ming-general tries (in vain) to commit suicide by eating rhubarb medicine.
  • The Guangzong emperor (1620-1621) is miraculously cured from some severe illness he got after having had a joyful time with four "beautiful women&;quot; sent to him by a high official, cured with rhubarb, naturally.
  • 1759 the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) forbids export of tea and rhubarb to the Russians after a border conflict in the north part of China.
  • In 1790 the same emperor declares that the Western countries will have to do without rhubarb.
  • In 1828 the Daoguang-emperor sends out an edict to the effect that no more tea and rhubarb must now be sold to the "barbarians&;quot;.
  • The imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu, who was sent to Canton in 1839 to put an end to the opium trade wrote a letter to Queen Victoria pointing to the "fact&;quot; that the foreign barbarians surely would die if they could not obtain tea and rhubarb from China and that the Queen for this reason should stop the wicked British merchants from trading with opium. Victoria seems never to have had the letter translated and read for her and when Lin Zexu later the same year wrote to the British merchants in Canton telling them that a stop to the rhubarb trade would mean the death for the pitiful foreigners, the pitiful foreigners responded with canon boats. Should maybe the Opium War really be called the Rhubarb War?

Rheum palmatum
photo credit

It is now a well established fact that although various types of rhubarb grow in different parts of the world (Altay, Siberia, the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia), true rhubarb, that is to say the kind which offers such very special active elements (the purgative elements!), is the Chinese variety (Rheum palmatum?), which is only to be found growing in Ama Surga and Dsun-molun, in the mountainous regions of Kansu province.

Roots in Europe

Marco Polo, who knew all about the Chinese rhubarb rhizome, talked about it at length in the accounts of his travels in China. So much interest on the past of Marco Polo is accounted for by the fact that in those days Venice was an extremely important trading center, and that as a result of eastern Arabic influence, Chinese rhubarb was already widely used in European pharmacy, especially in the school of Salerno. The roots of the Chinese type are still used in medicine. A planting of rhubarb is recorded in Italy in 1608 and 20-30 years later in Europe. In 1778 rhubarb is recorded as a food plant in Europe. The earliest known usage of rhubarb as a food appeared as a filling for tarts & pies. Some suspect that this was a hybrid of the Chinese variety of rhubarb.

About 1777, Hayward, an apothecary, of Banbury, in Oxfordshire, commenced the cultivation of rhubarb with plants of R. Rhaponticum, raised from seeds sent from Russia in 1762, and produced a drug of excellent quality, which used to be sold as the genuine Rhubarb, by men dressed up as Turks. When Hayward died, he left his rhubarb plantations to the ancestor of the present cultivators of the rhubarb fields at Banbury, where R. officinale is also now cultivated, from specimens first introduced into this country in 1873. Both R. Rhaponticum and R. officinale are at the present time grown, not only in Oxfordshire but also in Bedfordshire. Although specimens of R. palmatum were raised from seed as early as 1764, in the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, it is not grown now in this country for medicinal purposes, experiments having shown that it is the least easily cultivated of the rhubarbs, the main root in this climate being liable to rot. R. officinale and R. Emodi have to some extent been grown also as an ornamental plant, being also quite hardy and readily propagated.

Appearance in America

Early records of rhubarb in America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or root stock from Europe in the period between 1790-1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets.


  1. Veggies Unit: your on-line guide to vegetarianism,http://www.honors.indiana.edu:80/~veggie/recipes.cgi/, (The University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Foods and Nutrition Solutions Series)
  2. Rhubarb a 4500-Year-Old Friend,http://www.zucca.it/main/english/storia/cap_il_rabarbaro_come.html, (from Zucca )
  3. Rhubarb Revisited - this fabulous foliage plant is under review, http://www.internetgarden.co.uk/index.htm (from Greenfingers Gardening Magazine)
  4. Rhubarbs, http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/rhubar14.html
  5. Untitled web page, http://agweb.clemson.edu/Hort/drd/Rhubarb.html
  6. Flora of China, http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&;amp;taxon_id=128294, has some nice images of palmatum and others as well as a huge list of Rheum species. 
  7. Plants and fungi of south-central China, http://hengduan.huh.harvard.edu/fieldnotes, (search on rheum) has some nice images of palmatum and others as well as a huge list of Rheum species.